Vice-presidential pacemaker means more woe for Bush

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The Independent US

Vice-president Dick Cheney expects to be back at his desk at the White House early this morning, less than two days after having a hi-tech pacemaker fitted to counter an irregular heartbeat. Doctors expressed confidence that he would be capable of carrying a full workload and Mr Cheney said he felt good as he walked cheerily out of the hospital on Saturday morning.

But he winced visibly as he eased himself into his official car for the short ride to his residence, and political Washington was buzzing with speculation yesterday on the wisdom of his continuing in office. This was the third time since the November election that Mr Cheney had been treated in hospital for his heart problems, and each time the questions have become more searching.

Mr Cheney has said ­ and reiterated last Friday ­ that he would resign if he felt he was unable to do his job properly, but he has also stressed that he has no qualms over his ability to continue. And President Bush has supported him.

Speaking from Camp David at the weekend, where he was hosting the Japanese Prime Minister, George Bush said he saw no need for Mr Cheney, who is 60, to scale down his duties. "I know Dick Cheney well," he said, "and if I were to say, 'You've got to slow down, Mr Vice-President', he's going to say, 'Forget it', because he's got a job to do."

The new questions on Mr Cheney's health could hardly have come at a worse time for Mr Bush, who has made no secret of his reliance on his Vice-President on a whole gamut of subjects, from national security through to energy policy to dealing with a Congress whose upper house is now controlled by the Democrats.

Less than six months into his presidency, Mr Bush looks grey and weary ­ as though he has aged 10 years ­ and his administration seems to have stalled. He is facing not just reinvigorated opposition from Demo-crats, but fading enthusiasm from Republicans in Congress, worried over their re-election prospects next year.

Mr Bush's approval ratings in the country have fallen on average by 6 percentage points since April, and now hover around 50 per cent. While the official word from the White House is that the President's aides are unworried and that polls mean little, administration insiders admit they are casting around for a new strategy that would "redefine" Mr Bush as the centrist and "compassionate conservative" of his election campaign.

A number of senior Republicans have complained privately that Mr Bush has "lost control of the agenda" and is simply not "connecting" with the country at large. "If only he could present a vision and ask Americans to help attain it," said one last week, "as Kennedy or Reagan did; people could feel involved. But he hasn't asked Americans to do anything, even to further his energy policy."

While still popular with conservative Republicans, Mr Bush's highly publicised efforts to attract centrists and Democrats to his cause have failed and even rebounded ­ as the loss of the Senate showed. One senior Democrat and erstwhile Clinton adviser put it thus: "The overarching problem is that the President campaigned as a centrist and is governing as a conservative."

After a highly successful start to his term, which included a transition seen as one of the smoothest in memory, Mr Bush's second tier of policy initiatives has run into the sand. His education Bill was shorn of key provisions before it was passed. A dozen or more Republicans voted with Democrats against key sections of Mr Bush's energy legislation in the past two weeks, and the whole energy policy is to be "relaunched" this week.

Mr Bush's effort to channel public money towards "faith-based organisations" for social projects has run into constitutional objections and is also being relaunched. And the Senate last week voted by a big majority for a "patients' bill of rights" that Mr Bush says he will veto, despite it being highly popular with voters.

The quorum of seasoned individuals he recruited to counter his own inexperience have proved less politically adept in office than Mr Bush must have hoped.

So far, he has been unable to build a consistent coalition that would both ensure passage of his legislation and build popular support. He needs Mr Cheney to help him to do that but he needs him to be 100 per cent fit and in command of his portfolio, which is by no means certain at present.